Monday, December 27, 2010

News from AGU and Elsewhere

From the web traffic reports it seems that many people are still on holiday.  That makes this a good time to catch up on a number of topics that haven't quite fit in anywhere else.

Hayabusa 2 Approved

John Freeman at the Ancient Solar System blog reports the the Hayabusa 2 mission to sample a near Earth asteroid has been approved for funding by the Japanese government.  He reports, that provisional plans for "the next Hayabusa will return samples from a body that has had organic chemistry, interacting with liquid water., in a rocky environment.... those are conditions close to the ones life is thought to have started in, but preserved and uncontaminated by actual life for over 4 billion years. To a guy like me, fascinated by the idea of how chemical systems evolve towards life, that's a mouth watering prospect!"  See Breaking news.....Hayabusa 2 lives!  (I just recently found Freeman's blog, but have been enjoying reading it.  You can see the latest posting on the list of blogs in the right column of this page.)

Tidbits from AGU

My time to pursue future planetary exploration topics at the AGU conference was limited by my real job.  For example, I missed NASA night to discuss a possible project in my research field.  I did pick up some tidbits in addition to the discussion with the proposing PI for the Journey to Enceladus and Titan (JET).  First, I got an explanation of why an Enceladus multiple encounter mission could carry six instruments while a minimal orbiter mission would have to drop both a radar sounder and a narrow angle camera (although it would pick up a magnetometer, which would cost much less than either of the dropped instruments) and still cost almost $200M more.  The orbiter would require both a large flight team be funded for several additional years to manage a large number of encounters with moons as the orbit is pumped down and would require a substantial retropropulsion system.  Seemingly simple mission options -- a longer flight and a larger propulsion system -- can raise costs substantially.

I also learned that most of the 28 Discovery missions proposed for the current competition would not require ASRGs.  Here is the list of missions that I've heard that were proposed that would use ASRGs:  Titan Mare Explorer (TIME lake lander), AVIATR Titan plane, Journey to Enceladus and Titan (JET), Io Volcano Observer (IVO), and a lunar lander (that presumably would explore the permanently shadowed polar craters).  In addition, the RAVEN Venus radar mapper mission has been proposed, but would be solar powered.  NASA has said that the mission with the best science within the cost cap will be the one chosen.  (That leaves just 22 mission proposals that I haven't heard about.)

Ryan Anderson is blogging on the planetary science news from AGU at the Martian Chronicles.  He's a bit behind, with only two days' reports (of five) so far, but I know what it's like to run a blog and try to complete your PhD at the same time.  Check back for his excellent summaries as they appear.

Budget Pressures

A Space News report on NASA night reports that the budget pressures on NASA's planetary science program are creating a difficult financial environment.  The major immediate challenges are additional funds required by the Mars Science Laboratory and rising launcher costs.  On the latter concern, Jim Green, head of the Planetary Division is quoted as saying, “We are surprised at how extensive those cost increases are,” he said. “You start to wonder where we go from here. How do we get out of low-Earth orbit on a regular basis?” See Rising Costs Cloud Future of NASA Planetary Program for the complete article.

One piece of good news from that article was the proposed FY2011 budget (still unapproved) would fund the first steps to renew production of plutonium essential to power missions to the outer solar system.  The article states, “This is really tremendous news,” Green said. “This is very, very, very important to us.”  Unfortunately, NASA's FY11 budget is caught up in politics and NASA, like much of the federal government, is being funded through a continuing resolution.  That resolution does not allow, or fund NASA to begin any new programs including restarting plutonium production.  (The news on the manned spaceflight side is worse, where NASA must continue funding programs that both the President and Congress have decided to cancel.)  See Congress freezes NASA's budget until March.  It's unclear what budget will eventually appear next spring for the remainder of FY2011 (which ends September 30).

Updates on the Akatsuki Venus Mission

It's now been some time since the Akatsuki spacecraft failed to enter orbit around Venus.  For anyone interested in following the investigation, a discussion at the board has been discussing the news as it comes out. See  Akatuki's problems follows problems with Japan's Nozomi Mars (failed) and Haybusa asteroid missions (ultimately successful after near death experiences).  The Japanese space agency JAXA apparently is rethinking its low cost approach to planetary missions and is considering spending more on future missions (possibly with the tradeoff of doing fewer missions).  See: Venus Probe's Problems May Cause Japan to Scale Back.

Other Interesting Articles

NASA's Next Mars Rover to Zap Rocks With Laser provides an overview of the ChemCam instrument for the Mars Science Laboratory.  The proposed SAGE Venus lander would study the chemistry of that world using similar techniques.

Team extends Stardust's fuel mileage for comet mission gives an update on the Stardust mission to re-encounter the Temple 1 comet.

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